Wednesday, February 27, 2008


By Jeremy Bowen - BBC Middle East editor.
A famous Israeli writer once said that Jerusalem is the only place where the dead are more important than the living.
That means that history is more alive in the Holy Land than anywhere else I can think of in the world. Any discussion about the Palestinians and the Israelis can, without being especially argumentative, rewind very fast back past Israel's independence 60 years ago, through the British, the Turks, the Muslim conquest, to the Romans and beyond.
For the last few weeks I have been looking into what was happening in the Middle East in 1948, the year of Israeli independence and of what Palestinians call their Nakba, or "catastrophe".
By local standards, 60 years is not very long ago at all. History matters in this part of the world, because it is so much part of everyone's lives.

The consequences of 1948, or some of them at least, were supposed to have been on the agenda at the meeting last week between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Messrs Olmert or Abbas face a very busy spring, summer and autumn. This winter can already be written off So far, their new peace process is sauntering along at a casual pace.
US President George W Bush, sponsoring the process, wants the two sides to reach an agreement ending a century of conflict by the end of the year.
It is not clear whether Messrs Olmert or Abbas regard that as a deadline, but if they do then they face a very busy spring, summer and autumn. Matters are moving so slowly that this winter can already be written off.
Back in February 1948, the British had another three months as the governing power in Palestine, although the power they had to govern was reducing by the day.
A civil war had begun between Palestine's Arabs and Jews (in those days they didn't call themselves Israelis; the new state of Israel did not declare itself independent until May).
The Arabs did not want a Jewish state to be created. The Jews had accepted a UN resolution splitting the land between Arabs and Jews the previous November, but expected to have to fight for their survival.
These days Messrs Olmert and Abbas have three particularly difficult problems to solve - the future of Jerusalem, the route of a border between Israel and a Palestinian state, and the future of the Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian refugee numbers have swelled to more than four million. All three issues were given another reshaping by Israel's victory in the 1967 Middle East war, but essentially they date back to 1948.
The issue of Jerusalem actually goes back much further than 1948. Sixty years ago neither side could imagine a future without a dominant role in the Holy City. Now the question is whether they can find a way to share it.
The starting point for the border is, for the Palestinians at least, the line set in the 1949 armistice that ended the fighting. It is often called the 1967 boundary because it stood until then.
Finally, no problem will be harder to solve than the future of Palestinian refugees. It started with the exodus of between 600,000 and 760,000 Palestinians in 1947-48, who fled for all the reasons civilians do in wars, away from an advancing enemy, to protect their children and to save themselves, and in some places because they were forced out at the point of a gun.
The survivors - and their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren - now make up a refugee diaspora of more than 4.5 million people.
I haven't, by the way, ranked them in order of difficulty. They will all be difficult.
Israelis will celebrate their state's first 60 years with pride One important thing to remember about 1948 is that is the biggest single landmark in a tale of two narratives.
This year will be a time for big celebrations for Israelis. Their achievement in building a modern, hi-tech, regional military superpower has been stunning.
Palestinians believe it has been done at their expense, and this year will be another reminder for them of the destruction of their society and the wreck of their dreams.
Most important of all this year is the fact that a Palestinian leader and an Israeli leader are trying to settle the 60-year-old legacy of 1948.
Most depressing is the fact that it is hard to find anyone who believes they can.



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